Worries Surfacing About Rutted Fields

Effects could be an obstacle next year.

Published on: Dec 17, 2009

The crop had to come out of the field. And it was the most difficult harvest season weather-wise since perhaps 1974. As far as handling low-quality grain, it may have been the worst since 1972, at least on the corn side. Because although ear molds weren't evident in every field in every farm, they were widespread over broad enough areas, especially here in Indiana, to cause major concerns, resulting in a variety of dockages and varying decisions on whether corn was accepted or rejected at the point of sale.

All that said, both farmers and consultants are now realizing that there are considerable ruts in some fields left form harvesting on soils wetter than preferred. The logic for doing so was obvious- for example, many ruts are obvious in soybean fields, especially in the southern half of Indiana. Some of these were made to get soybeans out in between rain showers in the waning days of October. At that point it looked highly likely that this was one of those early '70s years that fathers can only tell sons now in the operation about- harvesting soybeans and corn in January on frozen soils, working in extremely cold conditions. As it was, several people noted deterioration in soybean quality from what was run in early to mid October to those run in early November. That's when Indiana was blessed with the late Indiana Summer stretch that erased the January soybean harvest scenario for most folk.

In the past few years, Gary Steinhardt, a Purdue university soil Extension specialist, ahs said that soil compaction may be a cost of doing business. If the crop must come out, it must come out. This year illustrates, however, that may be there is a point at which that logic no longer makes sense. How much damage are you willing to do to the soil rather than wait for a better opportunity to harvest?

What you decide now in answer to that question might be different than what you think next summer. Steinhardt has documented that the effects of soil compaction show up the most in dry years. This certainly wasn't a dry year. If next year is, or even the year after that, compacted soils could contribute to crops showing signs of stress earlier than they would otherwise. There can be real effects on yield. However, the effects are usually more dramatic in corn. Soybeans seem to be more forgiving of compacted soils than corn.

Not that the rust are there, what can you do? Perhaps develop a plan that makes sense. Don't expect this one winter to erase the damage, because it won't. It may do very little to address it. Tilling in rutted areas when it's wet next spring will only compound the problem. It may be necessary to work on them when soils are dry.

Ripping the soil with an in-line ripper that leaves the surface undisturbed at some future point when soils are dry may or may not help solve the problem. There is conflicting data and anecdotal evidence about how much that helps. Part of it seems tied to how bad soils are compacted. In extreme cases, such as when cattle tromp fields, then ripping has been shown to help improve yield potential.

The number one take-home message seems to be that if you have ruts, you will need to address them at least physically to continue farming the field. Perhaps a good goal is not adding insult to injury by taking action that only adds to compaction, such as disking or working in ruts when soils are wet.